Tribal Bloods

John Wenke

Michael Marlow makes a good living as an actuary for State Farm Insurance. He figures out the likelihood of people living to eighty or dying at sixty. People who live to eighty have a high statistical probability of surviving to ninety. Personally, none of it matters. At the individual level, all statistics are irrelevant. There is more to it, he claims. Computers, demographics, environmental factors—these things and more come into play. He needs to fill out the time, immerse himself in issues and entanglements that justify a forty-hour work week.
    Michael Marlow has had one wife for nine years. They have two children, a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. He holds the office of lecturing knight at the local Elks lodge, votes straight Republican, and never misses Mass. He looks forward to parish council meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of every month. Last Yuletide, his wife forced him to be a Salvation Army bell ringer. For three blustery hours one Saturday, he shivered outside a Wal-Mart and collected dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels, pennies, buttons—whatever shoppers tossed into the black kettle. Michael Marlow tells his wife he won’t be doing that anymore, that he felt stupid, ridiculous, somehow on display, implicitly demeaned—the red apron, the obnoxious bell, the association with poverty.
    Yet not long ago he left Mass right after Communion, scooted to his new, fully equipped Dodge Grand Caravan, and scrunched in the rear seat. Hidden behind the dark tinted glass, he tore off his brown check sports jacket, slipped the noosed tie over his head, and pulled off his white Oxford shirt. In seconds he kicked out of his chinos and brown wingtips. He put on his bright green wind pants, his two-hundred-dollar McNabb jersey, and his shiny green sneakers. Now seated in the front passenger’s seat, the visor pulled down, he looks in the mirror and smears the right side of his face and forehead with green paint and the left side of his face and forehead with white paint. In almost no time he jettisons the costume of projected everydayness and assumes the regalia of tribal belonging. Michael Marlow speeds away from the empty, high-suburban streets of Chester County, down the rutted and gouged macadam of Interstate 95, past the airport expanse with its clutter of construction cranes and parked jet planes, past the sewage treatment plant where rectangular settling tanks resemble flooded Asian farms, over the bridge and the skein of oil refinery pipelines, past the flame-lit towers that seem to singe the drifting white clouds dotted with black smudges. By ten o’clock he arrives at the sanctum, the parking lot of Lincoln Financial Field. His three brothers and thirty close friends have already staked out their spot. They, too, are costumed for the occasion. All around, there are team jerseys galore—Westbrook, Dawkins, Akers, and so on. Over there is a green-feathered headdress, and right here is an Andy Reid mask. The coffee is percolating, and the grills are smoking. The actuarial world is left behind the slammed door of Michael Marlow’s consciousness. Kick-off is less than three hours away. If the Eagles beat the Cowboys, he will feel centered, grounded, quietly jubilant—at least for a week, until the Eagles travel north to confront the hated Giants. If the Eagles lose, he will feel disgruntled, unsettled, out of step. He’ll not do violence to his wife or others. He will still be himself, but a little less so. His world will wobble off kilter. The tribe will have taken a hit.
    On the surface, the whole thing is preposterous, even absurd: otherwise rational, stable people—many of them neo-Goldwater Republicans—feeling deep, abiding attachments for one or more sports teams in the cities where they grew up. Shawn Quirk left Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1976 to attend graduate school in Connecticut. After teaching in the Virgin Islands for two years, he settled in Fullerton, California, and married a Hispanic California girl. He has taught in Fullerton for the last quarter century. He loves the weather, and despite the annual wildfire scares, the memory of those Northridge aftershocks, and the recent divorce, he wouldn’t think for five seconds of moving back to the deep-winter freeze. But nothing in the lower layers has changed. He remains a Packer aficionado, even writing plays about the legendary Green Bay Packers teams of the Vince Lombardi era. In one play Herb Adderley shows up at a bar, and everyone is waiting for Vince to return. This play is clearly derivative, and it is meant to be: Vince is Godot, who never returns. In Shawn Quirk’s spare time, when he isn’t an overtly single father of four busy children, he runs a lively Packer nut Listserv under the name of The Great El Moldo. During those years when the Packers were doomed to be regularly steamrolled, he released a weekly Packer Prophecy that always forecasted victory.
    Harry Hanratty has not lived in Cleveland for thirty-five years, but he hates the old Browns, who left Cleveland and are now the Baltimore Ravens. Conversely, Harry loves the new Browns as if they were the old Browns of his youth. The Cleveland Indians are the only baseball team he follows. He doesn’t even like baseball, to tell the truth, although not a day goes by when he fails to scour the box scores, studying the achievements of players he knows only by name. In fact, he wouldn’t recognize the face of a single Cleveland Indian, not if they were trapped in the same stalled elevator.
    Tribal attachment is only incidentally tied to individuals. Ultimately, even a team’s success or failure is irrelevant. Everything turns over—players, coaches, owners. Everyone is a little surprised to realize that only a handful of players remain from the Eagles team that recently lost a Super Bowl. One year, Terrell Owens was a hero in Philadelphia and despised in Dallas for having danced as a 49er atop the midfield Cowboys star in a staged display of mocking contempt. Two years later, in a mall parking lot, Eagle zealots conducted a ceremonial Terrell Owens jersey burning, a sacrificial form of exorcism. For a time he was cheered by the very Cowboy fans who once loathed him. T. O. had been cast out of the Eagles’s tribe only to be assimilated by the Cowboys’s tribe, from which he has recently been expelled. Not long ago, members of a ferociously tribal European soccer club like Real Madrid used to root fervently for the British celebrity-icon David Beckham. Not far away, the rabid fanatics of Barcelona cheered the soccer conniptions of Brazilian wonder Ronaldinho. It doesn’t matter that Beckham, a highly paid mercenary, was there one year and gone the next. Nor does it matter that many Spaniards remain ambiguous about Brazil and its colonial connection with Portugal. Now that Ronaldinho has left to play for Milan, he will be replaced by someone else, possibly David Beckham, maybe even a German, for whom the tribe will cheer just as frantically. Individual players are rarely members of the tribe. In fact, the team is not even the tribe. The team is merely the outward sign, or symbol, by which the tribe becomes known to itself.

After millions of years of evolution, of living in village or nomadic enclaves where the fate of an individual depended on the fate of the collective, human beings retain those primal urges that drew ancient clans to huddle in caves, mud huts, long houses, and teepees. The modernist myth of the autonomous self has lasted for little more than a microsecond of evolutionary time. Beneath the crusted crown of ego-driven demands with its philosophical underpinnings mired in the quicksand of romantic individualism, despite the explosion of the nuclear family and social stratification dependent almost entirely on income and job title, even with the modern city and its seemingly unlimited expanse of high-rise condominiums where a multitude of single people lie filed at night into nicely carpeted slots, a vast majority of us retain a magnetized attraction to public manifestations of tribal affiliation. Most Americans find a relatively safe way to express these hard-wired compulsions through the sports world. It is not even a matter of a sports team claiming part of the entertainment dollar. In fact, these tribal-blood relations are not entertaining in the way that American Idol or Dancing with the Stars might strike some as entertaining. Nor are they entertaining in the way that sports sideshow sight-bytes are entertaining. Coaching meltdowns provide low comedy that never fails: a dementedly enraged Bobby Knight flings a folding chair across a basketball court; Hal McRae goes ballistic, knocking over chairs and cursing everyone silly; Dennis Green spits fire at a podium but maintains impeccable grammar: “They are who we thought they were!” Tribal belonging goes beyond entertainment values because, quite often, tribal bloods experience intense suffering of a collective, nonpersonal, free-floating variety. Some tribal members even despise the tribe—the degree of disdain inversely reflecting the depth of an ineradicable affiliation. In these cases, suffering is the psychic badge of belonging. Not long ago, the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII. For a number of mornings after, members of the New England tribe, despite the Patriots’s recent near-dynastic successes, awoke to that hollow feeling—a sense of mood dislocation, abstraction, even ennui. No one had died, but something was lost.
    None of it is logical or even a matter of choice. You are born into the tribe, or at least in your formative years, you come to identify so completely with the tribe that there is no escape. Your spirit has hooked up, and that is that. The need for tribal belonging probably derives from a survival or nesting instinct locked within the chromosomal matrix—a genetic predisposition to be connected to an entity larger than the family and more expansive than the motley mix of friends that passes in and out of our lives. The craving presupposes the fix: the unconscious pilot drives the ego-mind along the rutted path of deepest desire. Total strangers can meet in a dental office in Seattle, Washington, and discuss the slap-hitting sensation named Ichiro Suzuki. It doesn’t matter that Ichiro is Japanese or that the Seattle Mariners are owned by Nintendo of Japan, a multinational conglomerate. What matters is that the discussion of Ichiro expresses a primal bond that allows each man to feel at home and secure, even in the threatening space of a dental office. Following the ninth appointment for implants and the fifth root canal, these men will never meet again. It goes well beyond the way politics or the weather or real-estate prices provide ready-made topics for small talk. Conversational expressions of tribal belonging become a way to displace individuality and elide difference. It doesn’t matter that one is a Jewish neurosurgeon or that the other is an atheist and an Internet porn mogul. Forty-thousand years ago they would be spearing salmon at the mouth of what we call the Columbia River. Now they are discussing batting averages and playoff possibilities. And if I somehow happened to be in the far corner of the office, if I had been flown to Seattle by Bill Gates to receive the Humanitarian of the Year Award, which comes with a sizable check, and I had broken a molar at lunch, and Bill was on friendly terms with the dentist and got me an appointment, I would be sitting there, waiting my turn, worrying about my molar. I would be bored by the enthusiastic descriptions of Ichiro’s batting stance and the dubious claim that all Japanese players have the same swing. Whether the Seattle Mariners have a good year or a bad year is of no more importance to me than the peculiar agitations of Japanese baseball. I am not a member of the Seattle tribe. I am a member of the Philadelphia tribe. It has been that way for as long as I can remember and remains so despite my various relocations. For seven years I lived in New England, surrounded by overbearing Red Sox fans and pugnacious Patriots fans. For four years I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a stranger among cheese heads, routinely mixing with polite and grateful Brewer fans, who never booed no matter how bad things got, and those hardy, optimistic Packer fans, who had no doubt about their central place in the universe. Since 1985 I have resided on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, seemingly for good, on friendly terms with disgruntled Orioles fans, brash Redskins fans, and jinxed Ravens fans. Along the way, in varying degrees, I may have found myself gently favoring the Red Sox or the Pack or the Brew Crew, but none of these surface adaptations reconfigured the template. On summer nights, during a free hour, I sit on the back porch in the dark with my crank-up L. L. Bean radio and tune in the Phillies’s wobbling broadcast. The Orioles are on cable TV every night, but I never watch them. Without the sustaining energy of the tribe, baseball can seem boring, a slow, monotonous dance. The players tug at their jockstraps and wait for something to happen. Many of the pitchers look more like beer-crazed truck drivers than professional athletes. There are never enough streakers to break up the sameness.

When I was a child, I lived in a world that no longer exists. In my overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood, most families had between six and twelve children and managed to live smushed together in three-bedroom, one-bath row houses. We had black-and-white TV, three stations, an evening newspaper. Gas topped out at twenty-nine cents a gallon. There were no cell phones, no cable television, no dish, no Internet, no personal computers, no My Space, no Facebook, no IM, no iPods, no Twitter. No Blackberries. A friend of mine used to steal from his brother’s massive stack of 45 rpm records, take the disks to the baseball field, and practice throwing them long distance like Frisbees. Back then, none of us had Frisbees. No one divorced. The only single-parent home belonged to Eddie Kane, whose father had mysteriously died before he started first grade. No doubt, behind the closed doors of many homes, there was dysfunction galore with rage, domestic abuse, perverted sex practices, and rampant economic stress, but families seemed, or were, intact. I used to think there was something wrong with my father because he didn’t stop at the local tap room after work and drink with some of the other fathers. On many days I sat on the front step at 4:25 pm and by 4:29 pm, I would see the black ’57 Plymouth with large upright fins glide to the curb. At the time I couldn’t understand how anyone in the country could root for a team other than the Phillies. In the late fifties and sixties, the Phillies were a disaster, a continually crumbling monument to futility. They set records for consecutive losses. In 1964, with World Series tickets printed and some hanging, then as now, on the walls of South Philadelphia taverns, the Phillies suffered their most infamous ignominy: they lost a six and one-half game National League lead with only twelve games to play. Despite the chronic awfulness of their performance, nothing matched the wonder I felt in going to the ballpark with my father and my older brother, Joe. Back then, Connie Mack Stadium was a decayed, Gothic tangle of peeling wood and constellated girders disintegrating amid an impoverished, dilapidated, racially segregated row-house neighborhood in North Philadelphia. The stadium was surrounded by gutted factories, closed shops, and rock-strewn lots. The pavements were gray with grime.
    The drive to the stadium took us from our neighborhood along a winding route that somehow got us going northbound along the Schuylkill River on East River Drive. I have vivid memories of whisking along in the tanklike Plymouth under great overhanging trees lining a curvy road that led to harsh right angles and tight passageways. Finally, my father squeezed the car into a narrow curbside parking space. Near Connie Mack Stadium there were no parking lots to speak of. You left the car where you could and hoped for the best. A ten-year-old black boy sitting on a stoop nodded at me as I climbed to the pavement from the backseat. On both sides of the street flowed streams of men and boys, a few women and girls. They were heading for the stadium, many wearing red Phillies caps. When my father came around, the boy put out his hand.
    “Hey, mister. Watch your tires for a dollar.”
    My father gave him a dollar. He knew—we knew—that tires that went unwatched tended to go flat, either slashed, gouged, or gently deflated.
    When we got to the stadium, we passed through the entrance archway and up the filthy concrete ramps and across the cavernous concourse, a seemingly subterranean world stinking of mildew and urine. The first glimpse of the manicured green field and the carefully combed infield dirt was always shocking—such beauty and light at the center of concrete ruin and rampant decay. The feeling was aesthetic and awesome, even devotional. From our brown wood-slat seats ten rows behind the more expensive red reserved box seats and under the upper-deck overhang but between the massive gray girders that, ten rows further back, obstructed the view, we were even with third base. On this night Stan Musial, nearing the end of his career, was playing left field. Lou Burdette was on the mound. I remember seeing a screaming line drive soar down the third-base line. The ball took one skittering hop, hit the wall, and went spinning away from the foul line. Arriving late, Musial retrieved the bouncing ball and fired it toward third base. That night, there was a rain delay with thunder and lightning so intense, the stadium lights were turned off. We sat for an hour in the dark and waited for play to resume. My father had to go to work in the morning. His shift at the oil refinery started at 7:30, but there was no talk of leaving, no talk of catching the eleven o’clock news or getting a good night’s sleep. At the ballpark, for us in the dark, with the flash, rumble, crash, and receding guttural groan of a fierce summer storm, there was no sense of time. The game had stopped. We were set in a state of suspension. I felt no fear or dread. My father was there, but so was the tribe, this quiet, patient crowd witnessing the wash of windswept rain. There was no better place to be.

The American sports world provides a comfortable and generally safe venue for expressions of tribal belonging. The modalities of combat and competition are regulated and ritualized, though occasionally in the aftermath of some championship, riots do break out on the streets of the victorious city. It is strange that the losers never riot, only the winners. In Boston, following the 2004 World Series that officially dispelled the Curse of the Bambino, one young woman was shot and killed by a police bullet during some celebratory mob melee. Unlike the tragedies that overtake individual lives, the sports world does not really have endings, just an interlocking scheme of overlapping seasons. Tribal consciousness rages against endings. In fact, the tribe draws its lifeblood from perennial antithesis, the us-against-other binary that fuels, in more dire ways, the intractable stalemates that characterize so many geo-global conflicts: Irish Catholic/Protestant; Arab/Israeli; Sunni Moslem/Shiite Moslem; Turk/Kurd. In Africa, it was relatively easy to get rid of the invading colonials—the Belgian, Dutch, French, and British overreachers vain and greedy enough to impose military, economic, and cultural dominion over the dark-skinned other. It is one thing to redraw the map and rename countries—erasing the likes of Rhodesia, the Belgian Congo, or British East Africa. It is quite another thing to recognize that colonial domination was superimposed on the eternal lurch and spasm of tribal conflicts that preceded Kurtz’s “horror” and survived its extirpation. Who can comprehend the genocidal imperatives that led Nigerians in the late 1960s to starve to death at least a million members of the Ibo tribe during Biafra’s attempt to secede from Nigeria? More recently, in Rwanda, the death squads of the Hutu majority hunted down and slaughtered some 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority. The film Hotel Rwanda was a brisk cartoon caper compared to the hellish historical actualities. On a regular basis, Kenya explodes with tribal eruptions. From the outside, it is very hard to discern the Kikuyus from the Luos. The politics of Somalia remain an irresolvable tangle of tribal conflicts, with the Maraheens locked in an unrelenting death dance with the Isaaqs. In such places, tribal armies are not run by commanders but warlords. The violence in Somalia might eventually disappear if the various warring bodies laid down arms and developed overlapping sports seasons. They could turn the warlords into coaches and have a call for tryouts. For such a prospect to move beyond whimsical fantasy, they would have to outlaw soccer. Soccer stirs tribal violence rather than abating it. During a soccer match, there is too much emotion. The game is mostly foreplay with very little scoring. No wonder there are riots. In soccer there are no eight-run rallies. Somalia, Nigeria, and Rwanda need to take up baseball, where there are studied pauses before every action. There is no clock. In baseball, one finds an occasional bench-clearing brawl, but these interruptions are little more than jokes—a lot of men milling about the pitcher’s mound hugging one another, some of them laughing. These brawls have a peculiar baseball rubric. They are called rhubarbs, not riots. Rhubarb is a leafy vegetable. Though the large, droopy leaves are toxic, the red stems are tart and edible. Some people make rhubarb into pie.

There are people out there who reject the existence of the tribe and have willed away their own sense of tribal affiliation. These dissidents think that sports fans are simpletons—immature, shallow, mentally damaged people without inner lives, who need vicarious attachments to feel like they are at least minimally alive. Such people view eternal tribal warfare—such as that between Sunni and Shiite Moslems—as the specific ongoing consequence of an ancient dispute over religious doctrine. They don’t see that tribal blood is lifeblood, that it can flow out of a body, but it can never go away. People who have opted out of the tribe—many are academics and intellectuals highly serious about subjects like deconstruction and penis envy—seem to be spectral figures, too thin, gnawing on the insides of their cheeks, hopped up over abstruse ideologies and theoretical abstractions. They are like atheists who, now that they have reasoned God out of existence, are disconsolate about having no one to blame for their troubles.
    On any given Sunday in late December, Michael Marlow may be getting savaged by the arctic blast of a Canadian clipper, his painted face freeze dried by bitter, gale-force winds. But he and the shirtless, shouting fat man next to him are essentially at home, enveloped in the warm recumbence of ambient affiliation. Their frozen toes might be rigid like thin cement sticks, but their hearts are locked securely in place, basking in the glow of an invisible campfire.

John Wenke teaches American literature and literary writing at Salisbury University. His books include J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction and Melville’s Muse. He has published numerous stories, essays, reviews, and chapters. “Tribal Bloods” will be part of an essay collection called Culture and Anarchy, Part Two.

“Tribal Bloods” appears in our Winter 2009 issue.